From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 1, pages 7-12

First Book

On August 28th 1749 on a Wednesday at the stroke of twelve noon I came into the world in Frankfurt on the Main. The constellations were in fortuitous position. The sun stood at its peak within the sign of Virgo for that day; Jupiter and Venus looked on it favorably, Mercury was not retrograde, Saturn and Mars were in balance. Only the moon, full at the time, exercised the force of its reflective powers as it arose in the sky. It opposed my birth, which consequently could not happen until the hour its zenith had passed. *

The favorable aspects, which the astologists calculated for me years later, may have been the reason for my continued existence, because they though I was dead due to the midwife's lack of skill. It was only with much effort that they were able to revive me. This situation, which had placed my family under such dire distress, reaped a benefit for my fellow citizens because my grandfather, Chief Magistrate Johann Wolfgang Textor *, used the occasion to appoint a birthing assistant and to introduce or renew formal instruction for midwifes. This benefited many a newborn hereafter. *

When one wishes to think back to his earliest

childhood memories, it is usually the case that we mix those memories with what others have told us about our own actual experiences. Without making too much effort to investigate things which will lead nowhere, let me say I remember we lived in an old house, which once consisted of two separate units. A towering staircase led to separate rooms at different levels, which were connected by stairs. For us children, a younger sister * and me, the wide vestibule at the lower level was our favorite room. Next to the doors there was a large wooden fence so that one could come in immediate contact with the street and the fresh air. Such birdcage-type structures as were provided for many houses were called porches. Women sat within them to sew or embroider; cooks prepared their vegetables. Ladies of the neighborhood spoke to one another. The streets benefited in the good weather seasons from the southern exposure. People felt free because of their contact with the outdoors. It was on these porches that children came in contact with their neighbors. Here is where I met the three brothers von Ochsenstein, who live adjacent to me. They were the sons of the deceased chief magistrate, very fine and active fellows who were quite fond of fooling around with me.

My friends loved to talk about all the practical jokes they had induced me to play especially upon very serious and lonely men. I will relate just one of these pranks. There was a ceramics market where my family had purchased not only new wares for the kitchen but also miniature plates for us children to play with.

On a beautiful afternoon when everything was quiet in the house I went out to the porch with my bowls and plates. No one else wanted to come out. I threw a plate onto the street and rejoiced with the sound it made as it broke. The Ochsenstein brothers saw that I was so amused that I was clapping my hands, so they shouted, do more! I did not hesitate. I threw the pot and they continued to call out, do more! I catapulted all the little bowls, pans and jugs onto the pavement. My neighbors continued to applaud and I was very pleased to keep them satisfied. My supply of crockery was exhausted but they kept on calling out, do more! I hurried back to the kitchen and picked up the earthenware dishes, which I was sure would make a wondrous sight as they broke. I ran back and forth, breaking one dish after the other as they were arranged on the shelves for as far as I could reach. When I couldn't get any more off the shelves I turned to the pots, destroying them in similar fashion. It was only later that someone came to stop me. The damage was done and with so much broken crockery at least people had a good story to tell until the end of their lives about the devilish little mischief maker.

My father's mother, with whom we lived, had a large separate room at the back of the house directly off the vestibule. * We used to play next to her chair and when she was sick we played next to her bed. I remember thinking she looked like a ghost, a beautifully frail woman always dressed in clean, white robes. Gentle and friendly, she remains a welcome memory to me.

We had heard that the street, on which our house was found, was called the deer grave. * We had seen neither graves nor deer so we wanted an explanation. Someone told us that our house was located in an area which at one time had been outside the city limits. It had been a graveyard and a preserve for a number of deer. People maintained and fed the deer because according to an old custom the senate each year had a public venison feast and they would have the deer at hand in the graveyard even if the princes and knights of the city chased away all the game beyond the site with their hunting parties or an enemy encircled and laid siege to the city. We liked this story a lot and we wished that there were still such a domesticated game preserve in our time for us to see.

From the upper floor at the back side of the house we had an attractive view of an almost infinite expanse of neighborhood gardens, which extended right up to the city walls. Unfortunately in transforming the once-existent common area gardens in order to form a street corner with Rossmarkt St, the size of our house's garden and those of a few other houses were greatly diminished by the backs of buildings. The high walls surrounding our courtyard blocked our view of the paradise lying so close at hand.

On the third floor there was a room they called the garden room because they could set up a few vegetable patches near the window to replace the gardens. This was my favorite spot as I grew up and it was here I spent, if not my most sorrowful hours,

at least the hours most filled with yearning. Looking over the gardens, the city walls and the embankments one saw the beautiful and fruitful plateau: it was here that nature exercised its most powerful attraction. During the summer I usually studied my lessions here and observed the weather. I could never see enough setting suns out of the window up there oriented in just the right position. However at the same time as I saw neighbors strolling through their gardens and tending their flowers, as children played and people amused themselves, as bowling balls rolled and pins fell, it awoke in me feelings of loneliness and yearning at an early age. Nature had placed in me a correspondingly serious and ominous character, whose influence became ever greater in the years which followed. *

The old, angular houses with their dark, gloomy corners were connected in such a way as to provoke fear and terror in children. Unfortunately at that time people still followed the education maxim, let the children fear ominous and invisible things so they will get used to being terrified. We children were supposed to sleep alone and if this became impossible for us and we jumped out of our beds and sought the company of the servants or maid, our father, with his nightshirt pulled up over his face to conceal his identity from us, would stand in the way and scare us back to our own beds. Anyone can perceive the evil results of this action. How is someone supposed to lose his fear when he's wedged between double terrors? My mother, always happy and cheerful and content to help others be the same, had a better pedagogical approach. She knew how to use rewards to attain her goals. It was peach season

and my mother promised us their rich flavor for every morning if we managed to overcome our fears the night before. It worked, and both parties were pleased.

My eye was often drawn to a series of Roman scenes my father had decorated on the wall of a hallway. These scenes had been etched by skillful predecessors of Piranesi *, who had a fine understanding of architecture and perspective and whose needle is very clear and precise. Daily I saw the Piazza del Popolo, the Coliseum, St. Peter's Square, St. Peter's Church from the outside and in, Engelsburg and so much more. The images made a deep impression on me and on occasion my usually very laconic father was disposed to permitting a description of the subjects. His preference for the Italian language and everything about the country was often discussed. He often showed us the marble and natural history collection, which he had brought back from there. He spent a great deal of his time preparing a description of his Italian journey, slowly and carefully transcribing and editing it and putting it into book-form himself. * An old and cheerful Italian language master by the name of Giovinazzi lent him much assistance. Plus the old man did not sing badly and my mother comforted herself by daily accompanying him on the piano. This is when I was introduced to Solitario bosco ombroso *, which I had to learn my heart before I could understand it.

By nature my father was an educator and when he retired from business he loved to impart what he knew to others. In the first years of their marriage he encouraged my mother to diligently write down what she knew

Go to pages 13-18

Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks